The economic downturn is already having an effect on consumer spending, and 'green' products are among the early casualties. Lucy Neville-Rolfe, executive director of corporate and legal affairs at Tesco, recently said there had been a marked shift in purchasing behaviour from premium to value or economy products since last September, when Northern Rock's problems first emerged.
Indeed, research from Mintel shows that, after soaring 70% since 2002 to reach a value of £1.5bn last year, sales of organic food have slowed as consumers defect to discount grocers.
In addition, a recent Guardian/ICM poll also found 52% of voters thought the environment should be the government's top priority, compared with 44% who believed it should be the economy. However, just 19% said they would choose to pay more for a more expensive environmentally-friendly product, compared with 58% who would opt for a cheaper alternative even if it were less good for the environment.
'What we are seeing very clearly is that mainstream consumers are not willing to pay to be green,' says David Bain, planning partner at Beattie McGuinness Bungay. The implications for the way companies market their green credentials are considerable.
Climate change is now a mainstream concern, and the growth in recycling and energy conservation among the general public is an example of embedded behaviour. Despite this, Bain believes that more immediate personal concerns, such as the rising prices of food, fuel, energy and mortgages, along with decreasing job security, will nudge the environment further down people's list of priorities.
'The next evolution in "green" awareness and practice will be about value as well as ethics,' he says. 'Brands that appeal to both sides of that equation will be very well placed.' He adds that two categories of green advertisers - 'green chic' and 'greenwashers' - will be hit hard.
He cites products such as handbag designer Anya Hindmarch's 'I'm not a plastic bag' as an example of the first type. 'The simple bag has become a symbol of ethical intent, and a very fashionable one at that,' he says. 'It is bought by the kind of people who like wearing their green credentials on their sleeves to show how right-thinking they are. It's an example, if you like, of conspicuous abstinence.'
Style over substance
Bain's words are echoed by Solitaire Townsend, chief executive of sustainability communications consultancy Futerra. 'The market for luxury green goods will shrink dramatically,' she says. 'Brands that flaunt their green credentials in advertising, with no substance to back them up, will be even harder hit. The worse the downturn gets, the more the genuinely environmentally-responsible companies will be sorted from those who never really got it.'
The number of complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) about misleading or exaggerated environ-mental claims bears out Townsend's prediction. Complaints rose from 117 in 2006 to 561 in 2007, and many of these focused on energy and car companies.
Townsend warns that brands indulge in greenwashing at their peril. 'Consumers are interrogating green ads much more carefully and get very upset when they have made a commitment to deal with a "green" company and found out they have been misled,' she says. 'Engagement with green issues is a very emotional thing, which is one of the reasons companies incorporate it into their strategies. It is a good new platform for engaging in dialogue with consumers and building brand loyalty.'
Despite its commitment to reducing its impact on the environment (encapsulated in its 'Tread Lightly' initiative), Eurostar claims it does not advertise its green credentials at all. 'We don't think the public believes advertising on green claims,' says marketing director Greg Nugent. 'We are about policy rather than presentation. Other brands spout about their carbon footprint or how many tonnes of CO2 they are saving, but that is pretty meaningless to most consumers. The biggest benefit of what we are doing has been the motivating effect on our staff.'
Eurostar's long-term commitment to the environment is a key aspect of its corporate reputation, Nugent explains. 'We haven't turned our backs on our core proposition, but we are using our green commitment to open up another line of communication with our consumers,' he adds.
'The short-term economic downturn will not change that at all, but it should force other companies to question how well their green advertising is working.'
Other companies are pursuing what environmental marketing consultant John Grant calls 'the eco-frugal' approach to advertising. Grant, co-founder of ad agency St Luke's and author of The Green Marketing Manifesto, says companies have an unprecedented opportunity to switch the focus of their marketing from 'spending green' to 'saving green'. As he points out: 'There are very few instances where saving money and saving energy are not compatible, and, in that sense, reducing the impact on the environment is the only silver lining in the recessionary clouds.'
Grant believes that, rather than flaunting eco credentials as an end in themselves and trying to gain green brand image points as a result, the way for brands to engage with consumers is to help them make the life-style choices that will make a difference to their pockets and the environment, such as setting the washing machine to a lower temperature of 30¡, insulating the loft or buying a smaller car.
Appealing to consumers' pockets
British Gas has pursued this approach, and set up the 'BG New Energy' initiative a year ago to look at new power sources and associated marketing. It has launched two 'green tariffs', two investments in green technology - including a fuel-cell powered boiler - and two insulation offers, and is distributing 52m free low-energy light bulbs to UK customers.
It also offers customers an Energy Savers Report comprising a free audit of their home's CO2 emissions with advice on how to reduce them. It runs a 'Generation Green' campaign in schools and, in association with the Institute of Public Policy Research, has set up a 'Green Streets' initiative to investigate how much energy eight streets across the country could save by improving the insulation of the buildings situated there. It also installed £17m of energy-saving products in UK homes last year.
'Most of these initiatives are marketed through press, TV or outdoor campaigns, and focus on saving money and energy,' says media relations manager Julian Mears.
'It is amazing that energy brands are advising consumers how to use less of their products,' says Bain, while Mears admits that 'getting the green message across will always be difficult for energy companies'.
Ben Stimson, director of responsibility and reputation at BSkyB, claims that the green message 'is integrated into everything we do'. Sky refers to its carbon-neutral status in its ads, uses its Bigger Picture website to communicate its environmental credentials, and has broadcast an environmentally focused 'Cool Cat' TV ad.
Research found that 70% of its consumers value practical help and advice on how to reduce their own environmental impact far more highly than general 'green' messages, says Stimson. So as well as sending out installers with free low-energy light bulbs to help offset the power used by set-top boxes - and communicating this initiative in its ads - BSkyB has created an 'AV to standby' tool, which automatically sets unused boxes to standby after 11pm. The facility has been downloaded to set-top boxes in 4m homes, and, typically, cuts the energy used by half, says Stimson, contributing to a total saving of 50,000 tonnes of CO2 and £12m in energy bills every year. Sky Magazine also offers viewers environ-mental tips, messages and 'perks'.
Battle to be believable
Nonetheless, while it is important to communicate the connection between cost savings and energy savings, Stimson says BSkyB uses tactics that are 'deliberately anti-greenwash' in its marketing. 'For example, our light bulb box was orange' he adds. Similarly, its print campaign for 'AV to standby', which depicted a sleeping man and carried the strapline 'Eco-warrior', was designed to get the message across that being green does not have to be difficult.
However, it is the car market that, arguably, best demonstrates the compatibility of green and economic values, although not all automotive firms have exploited this synergy in their communications. Several of the brands that enthusiastically joined the green rush in a bid to clean up their image as arch-polluters have now come unstuck. In the past six months, the ASA has up-held complaints against Fiat, Saab and Renault for making unjustified environmental claims.
Two years ago the Toyota Prius, driven by celebrities such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Leonardo DiCaprio, was in danger of becoming another symbol of 'conspicuous abstinence'. Now, Bain points out that 'with the oil price hike it is proving to be a very thrifty purchase'.
In the US, car advertising, including that for the Prius, tends to focus on cars' economy and fuel efficiency rather than their green credentials. Richard Hudson, marketing director at BMW UK, says that advertisers such as BMW will continue to communicate all the factors that go into the decision to purchase a car, including fuel economy, environmental impact, safety and design.
'Our most recent ad, "Thank You", might look like a "green" ad, with the flowers, the hill and the breeze, but actually it is about how these things help make the car more efficient. The hill charges the battery, for example,' says Hudson.
Nevertheless, despite public statements by brands about their long-term commitment to the green agenda, Grant believes that there can be 'no marketing company in the world that would not want to respond to changing consumer priorities and pressures'.
Companies are, or should be, watching changes in consumers' attitudes to green issues very closely, and preparing to adapt their strategies accordingly.
James Boulton, marketing director for HSBC UK, agrees. In 2007, the bank launched its 'Climate Partnership' - a five-year, $100m tie-up with major environ-mental charities to tackle the effects of climate change.
'For us, being green is about corporate responsibility, but our green credentials are very much part of our brand and we are looking at the best ways to activate those in our marketing,' he says.
Currently, the bank pays £5 into the accounts of customers who opt for online banking, an initiative supported by its current 'What do trees mean to you?' TV commercial. It is also reviewing its 'green sales', a percentage of the proceeds from which goes to green charities.
The thought that big companies are applying to green marketing is replicated in the advertising, marketing and public relations briefs Futerra receives from clients, according to Townsend. 'We are seeing more briefs than ever, but clients are really considering what value green brings to consumers,' she says.
Unlike previous spikes in green activity, adds Townsend, the current, more serious and permanent tranche is being led by business. 'This time we need solutions, which is something that governments and NGOs are bad at, and business is good at.'
Business must also communicate what it is doing more effectively to customers, governments and NGOs alike because, says Grant, 'consumerism faces a crunch year'.
Grant adds that, with scientists making gloomy predictions about the scale of climate change, environ-mentalists' knives are drawn, ready to move in for the corporate kill. 'Unless it can show itself to be part of the solution rather than the problem, marketing - the industry that sold us these big polluting cars and flashy lifestyles - could become the scapegoat,' he warns.
The New Green Consumers
Conspicuous (non-) consumers
A marketer's dream, these affluent consumers have ditched their Hermes Birkins for an Anya Hindmarch 'I'm not a plastic bag'. They wear their green credentials on their sleeves, preferring ethical brands such as People Tree. Consumers in this group are willing to pay a premium to be seen to do the right thing, just as long as it does not infringe on their lifestyles, and they offset their numerous international flights.
A growing and challenging group of consumers, they are happy to be green when it suits them, as long as it is in their financial interest. While they are happy to turn off the lights and use less water to save money, they opt out of paying to offset their flights. This group is most likely to hold brands and businesses responsible for investing in the environment.
Highly media-savvy, these consumers place heavy demands on brands and will do their research to ensure the companies they choose to use are genuinely responsible. In addition to putting pressure on businesses to do the right thing, they place an equal responsibility on themselves and are actively changing their habits to be more environmentally friendly.
This group is happy to wax lyrical on the controversial argument that global warming is a big swindle - Jeremy Clarkson is their poster-boy. Absolutely opposed to any form of green taxes , they believe government policy is driven by 4X4 envy. They have no plans to change their habits or purchase patterns. The only way brands can persuade them to go green is by convincing them that it is in their interest to do so, for example by emphasising potential cost savings or tax breaks.
Complaints to the ASA: consumers alive to 'greenwash'
- Complaints to the ASA about environmental claims in advertising increased dramatically in 2007. It received 561 complaints about 410 ads, compared with 117 complaints about 83 ads in 2006.
- Claims that products and services were carbon 'neutral', 'zero' or 'negative' were particularly open to challenge, as were statements about CO2 emissions and absolute claims such as '100% recycled' or 'wholly sustainable'.
- Claims about green tariffs, 'sustainable' products and 'food miles' were also among those likely to confuse consumers.
- ASA rulings last year set a bench-mark for all advertisers to follow. Shell's press ad depicting industrial chimneys emitting flowers instead of smoke was ruled misleading because it implied that the company used most of its waste CO2 to grow flowers. The actual amount was a very small proportion compared with Shell's global activities.
- A ruling against Ryanair judged the claim in one of its ads that aviation accounts for just 2% of all CO2 emissions to be misleading. The ad invited readers to send a protest to the Treasury about UK Air Passenger Duty, but didn't make clear that the figure referred to global aviation emissions, not those from UK flights, which account for 5.5%.
- Lexus' headline claim in a magazine ad - 'High performance, low emissions, zero guilt' - was ruled misleading because the text that clarified the claim was not prominent enough and 'zero guilt' implied the car caused little or no harm to the environment.